CityLab 2014: Should You Grow Old in Cities?

Growing old in the 21st century city isn't easy.

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Mayors, scholars, policy wonks and various other experts descended on downtown L.A. this week for CityLab’s 2014 conference on the topic of innovation in cities. One of the panels focused on seniors and the city. Baby boomers, the sizable U.S. demographic cohort born between 1946 and 1964, are increasingly approaching retirement age and in another shift that one of the panelists, Fernando Torres-Gil, pointed out, one third of baby boomers currently live alone. It is widely believed that cities are better for the elderly than suburban or rural areas, due to the proximity to services and other people. But that does not mean all cities are easy places to live in advancing years.

Moderated by Ronald Brownstein, Editorial Director of Atlantic Media, which co-sponsored the conference along with the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the panel delved into the challenges — and solutions — facing the elderly in cities, from changing retirement and fears of isolation to extended life span and medical expenses. They also learned why it makes more sense to invest in the elderly than in a stadium.

Aging in Place?

One of the buzz phrases thrown around during the discussion was the idea of “aging in place,” as in one’s own home, as opposed to moving to a setting like a retirement community or nursing home. Jennie Smith-Peers of Elders Share the Arts was a big advocate of this approach, but also was careful to point out that it had to be paired with methods to combat isolation. She believes that arts provide an important “bridge” to the community that is vital to seniors’ well-being.

Fernando Torres-Gil rebutted that the “age in place” model may be too idealistic, because the services that senior-oriented housing are able to offer are still desirable for an aging population. Plus, growing old in ones own space does not ensure that isolation won’t occur. He sees the bigger challenge lying in embedding long-term care facilities and other services in urban settings.

Multigenerational living is also increasingly seen as an attractive option as rents and housing prices soar in cities.

The Future of Retirement

At every level, funding was cited as a crucial consideration. One major hurdle is the changing nature of retirement and the evaporation of pensions.

“Retirement as we’ve known it since World War II has disappeared or is disappearing.” said Fernando Torres-Gil. “The new retirement is keep working, stay healthy, keep working get new added skills and stay engaged, either because you want to or  you have to. And growing numbers of individuals will find themselves financially insecure as they get older.”

And while some workers are content to retire later in life, M. Scott Ball, Principal of Commons Planning, urged caution with reworking policy as a result of that emerging trend.

“The gift of longevity has not been distributed evenly,” he said. “When you start talking about raising the social security retirement age, you immediately divert…all of the resources to the place where they are least needed. You die early if you are low-income.”

Examples of Success

Barcelona recently won an “Innovative Cities” competition financed by former New York City Mayor Bloomberg that sought out innovative approaches to urban living. Barcelona won for “improving the quality of life for its growing elderly population with the creation of a support network that would include relatives, friends, social workers and volunteers.”

The Mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, was one of the panelists. He sees investing in the elderly as an obligation. “It’s better to do that than build a stadium. It’s a problem of priorities, ” he said.

Here in L.A., Torres-Gil lauded the efforts of Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to bring a more diverse crowd to L.A. phil as a model for bringing together different ethnic groups and age cohorts through the arts.

A common stigma facing retirees is that they are seen as economic drains. But M. Scott Ball mentioned how Florida has achieved the best of both worlds: “Florida has perfected attracting older adults at the peak of their spending years and exporting them in their most expensive…The minute they get ill they want to go back to where their family members are.”


Panelists discussed the impact of smartphones and self-driving cars on senior mobility. Ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber were celebrated for their potential to affordably transport seniors around if their licenses are taken away.

But aside from those previous examples, the role of technology in growing old today was not touched on in the 85 minute panel. From wearable medical devices to smart bathrooms, there are endless possibilities. As it happens some of these will be discussed at a “Body Computing” conference at USC this Friday. Stuart Karten (below), featured on this DnA talking about such topics as how to make hearing aids attractive to baby boomers reluctant to display their weakening capabilities, is one of the speakers.

What are you most concerned about in regard to growing old in a particular place? We’d love to hear from you. Write in our comments section below or to

Karten hearing aid